Denver Coliseum no longer under consideration for first sanctioned homeless encampment

The Denver Coliseum parking lot is no longer under consideration for the city’s first sanctioned homeless encampment, and no other site has been seriously proposed in its place yet, officials say.

That pushes the opening of Denver’s first legal homeless encampment back at least another month, said Cole Chandler, executive director of the organizing Colorado Village Collaborative.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration continues to sweep out existing encampments contrary to federal pandemic recommendations. City officials have scheduled their third and fourth “cleanups” for next week.

The collaborative and its partners withdrew zoning applications for the coliseum site after neighbors pushed back against the idea, Chandler said.

“There was lots of legitimate pushback from neighborhoods about the ways they’re already overburdened,” Chandler said.

City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca also voiced her opposition to the site, which sits in her district.

With money already in place to operate an encampment for a full six months, Chandler previously anticipated the city’s first one could open in early August, but now he estimates the soonest it could happen is early September.

Multiple encampments will be needed to accommodate the people who are living outdoors in Denver, including those forced out of unsanctioned encampments near the Colorado Capitol and Morey Middle School. At times hundreds of people have lived in those locations, while the city is planning encampments that will be able to host a maximum of 50 or 60 people each.

Several Denver City Council members proposed sites after Hancock — who had long opposed the idea of sanctioned encampments — asked them for suggestions. Among them: the Coors Field parking lot, the parking lot at Empower Field at Mile High and Park Hill golf course.

But Chandler said his organization has not yet proposed opening the city’s first encampments at those or any other sites.

The Colorado Village Collaborative and partnering organizations asked Gov. Jared Polis for state properties that could be used for an encampment after city officials cleared out the state-owned Lincoln Park, just west of the state Capitol.

Representatives for Polis did not respond when asked whether state officials had any sites in mind.

However, illegal encampments have grown in size and number during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are balancing multiple public health and public safety risks in the encampments,” said Theresa Marchetta, spokesperson for Hancock.

She cited the spread of diseases other than COVID-19; a lack of bathrooms or hand-washing stations; the accumulation of trash and rat infestations; and increased drug sales and violence.

Breaking up the encampments isn’t the way to address those public health problems, said Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless program at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

“It’s hard to see what it’s going to solve,” O’Connell said.

And forcing people without housing to leave current encampments only exposes them to a greater possibility of contracting the coronavirus, he said: “They’re probably safer there from getting COVID than in a closed shelter or even, to some degree, a hotel.”

Barring a disease as deadly as Ebola, for example, O’Connell said encampments are better off left alone, and the city should provide trash cans, restrooms and other services to cut down on sanitation problems.

Many living in the encampments say they merely move a few blocks each time they’re forced to pack up because they’re afraid or unwilling to stay in shelters.

Marchetta said more than two dozen people from the Morey encampment were connected to housing services. She did not respond when asked why city officials don’t offer more portable restrooms, trash receptacles and an increased police presence around existing encampments rather than forcing people experiencing homelessness to move to a new site.

Denver officials will next clear out the homeless encampment at 12th Avenue and Acoma Street on Monday. They’ll then clear out an encampment at 13th Avenue and Washington Street Tuesday.

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